Much was made out of the first Ashes Test at the Gabba. It was expected to be a face-off between Australia’s domineering bowling attack and England’s appealing batting line-up. Contrary to all the ruckus and hullabaloo before the Test, the series opened rather sedately, meekly if you may call it, gained momentum as the days passed by and concluded as a rather one-sided affair.
How did such an enticing contest pan out in a dour fashion? Were the teams not prepared enough? Was there not enough vigour and zeal? Did the slower Gabba affect the pace bowlers? Was the batting too feeble?
A lot of questions and concerns are tasked after Australia swept aside the visitors at Brisbane in the first Test match. The result was much anticipated given the hosts’ immensely affluent ways at the Gabba. But in hindsight, the contest was much closer than that. For three days, the game see-sawed between the two sides before firmly tilting over to Australia’s.
So what tipped the scales?
One close peek into the plans of either teams and we see that a major factor that affected the balance of the contest was the contrasting bowling plans to Joe Root and Steven Smith, two of the most prolific batsmen in World cricket today.
Smith’s 141 was stupendous, studded with flabbergasting shots and seized the initiative Australia’s way. Joe Root, on the other hand, looked tentative, if not fully vulnerable, and failed to convert his starts.
In a way, the two batsmen are eerily similar. Both like to keep the scoreboard ticking and are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to score. They love milking the runs and the manner in which they score those effortlessly make them daunting batsmen to bowl at.
Yet, Root was silenced and Smith wasn’t.
Was there a specific plan from the Australians to Root that altered the course of the game?
In the absence of Ben Stokes, England sorely needed Root to fire. While he got the starts, the Australian seamers – Pat Cummins in the first innings and Josh In the second – worked him over with straight balls angled into him.
The tactic shows that the Aussies had done their homework quite well. Root does have a tendency to fall over on the flick but it is a minor, minor chink in his vast repertoire of shots. To exploit that required shrewd planning and better execution.
The Australians were seen getting Root on the back-foot with short-pitched deliveries and then wide outside off-stump ones. Then a straight one invariably came and prized out the big scalp.
There was pace and intent everytime Australia bowled at Root’s stumps. The plan was to mess up his flick shot so as to make him lose shape. When that happens, the bat invariably misses the ball and Root falling over means his front foot remains a sitting duck. It was planning and thinking blend into one perfect, seamless execution.
CricViz had analysed Joe Root’s batting before the series and they place Root’s average against short pitched stuff at 89.38. He has a rather decent record against good length balls too, averaging 39.09. But his average drops to 30.08 against full deliveries from the seamers, something which came to the fore when Australia relentlessly attacked his pads.
Interestingly, Steven Smith has a rather similar weakness. The Australian skipper is a vociferous run machine but his tendency to shuffle across the stumps to meet outside off-stump deliveries means that he is in one way or the other susceptible to fuller ones on the leg.
He has been leg before wicket 14 times in his Test career, 9 of them to right arm seamers and spinners. Umesh Yadav exploited this weakness of the Aussie skipper in India, beating him for pace and striking him flush on the pads.
Unfortunately, England did not have an out and out pace bowler in the squad and the lack of pace might have allowed Smith to get away with fuller balls on the pad. In Craig Overton, they did have a backup bowler with raw pace but the visitors opted to go for the tried and tested Jake Ball, who isn’t poor on the pace gun himself, but lacked the consistency to target Smith’s pads regularly without conceding a lot of runs.
In hindsight, England should probably have attacked more against Smith. The skipper is a rampant scorer on the leg-side and attacking his stumps with a straighter, leg-side heavy field could have reaped rewards and cut out his scoring zones. But that did not quite materialise and the stark difference between the two plans tilted the balance of the game Australia’s way.